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Getting Tough about Textile Imports
By Brigitte Wolfer

The U.S. Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) released a decision opposing certain textiles imports from China last week, putting in place safeguards to counter the economic impact on US textile manufacturers. These safeguards target only certain textile imports from China, and do not affect other countries’ normal business with the U.S.

“CITA determined that the US market for other synthetic filament fabric and brassieres and other body-supporting garments is being disrupted and that there is a threat of further disruption,” announced the U.S. Department of Commerce in its press release last week. CITA determined that such products are adverse to normal competitive trade arrangements and can no longer be considered acceptable market behaviour.

“Such safeguards are in accordance with the textile provision in China’s Accession Agreement to the World Trade Organization,” says the U.S. International Trade Administration.

Quotas on cotton and manmade fibre sweaters, gowns and robes, wool trousers, and knit fabric were extended until October 1, 2005, at which point research data on such imports should be available. CITA will then determine a relaxation or further extension of the restrictions.

Total employment within the U.S. textile industry has decreased from 858,000 jobs during the mid-1990s to about 258,000 at present. “The Bush administration is now under great pressure to make good on vote-getting promises to Congressmen/women with textile bases,” says Lloyd Wood, a spokesperson for the American Manufacturing Coalition.

Canada is trying to fight back, and has eliminated tariffs on US$15 million of annual fibre and yard imports, and up to US$75 million worth of apparel imports from China, beginning this year. At the same time, Ottawa pledged US$50 million in funding to increase Canadian textile manufacturers’ production efficiency. Such funds are available until 2010.

On Monday, China and the European Union reached an agreement to release the 80 million pieces of Chinese-made textiles—including pants, sweaters, and bras—that were blocked at European ports because they exceeded the Chinese textile import quotas that the EU set in place. Both sides will share the burden of these excess imports into Europe, with Europe agreeing to take in the textiles, but with close to 50 percent of them counting against 2006 quotas.

The ongoing predicament for the European Union is that its textile industry has shrunk and the market rule of “supply and demand” has taken a back seat to quotas and negotiations.

“When I go shopping I want the best quality for the money I spend, and am not buying because something is cheap,” says Louis Bareno. “I stay away from Chinese-made textiles. Their quality is not good; they fall apart and look limp after the first wash.”

“On the other hand, I think the U.S. is being hypocritical with quotas. China is funding our current account deficit. They sell cheap goods to the US, and then use the money to buy treasury bills. Alas, not only the U.S., but also Canada and the Europeans, have an interrelationship that is difficult to unravel.”

“When I go shopping, I don’t look at the labels, but quality and price do matter,” says Jacqueline Tannenbaum. “I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a textile hub, and have seen over the years a number of textile firms close. It makes me sad to see my friends and acquaintances lose their jobs. It is easier for a younger person to move on and find another job. But what about those above 50 years of age, who worked for the same company all their lives—where could they go? Poverty is generally the result for these people.”

In addition to the perceived poor quality of Chinese-made textiles, inadequate working conditions, compensation, and rights have also worried consumers. Issues surrounding China’s network of slave labour camps have also been raised by human rights groups and foreign governments. The world understands that no one stands a chance competing with China’s poorly paid, and sometimes unpaid, workforce. Without addressing China’s fundamental labour issues, foreign tariffs and quotas can serve only as temporary plugs.

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